It can be plain or embroidered, a single hue or richly patterned. It can be black or white or brightly colored. It can be a bold statement or a humble custom.
The hijab is many things to many women. In “Unveiled,” Chicago-based playwright Rohina Malik explores the significance of the traditional Muslim headscarf through the lives of five contemporary women who choose to wear it.
At 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, Malik will bring her acclaimed one-person show to Washington University in St. Louis as part of the Edison Ovations Series.
‘This is my feminism’
Born in London to an Indian mother and Pakistani father, Malik immigrated to the United States as a teenager and attended high school in Skokie, Ill. Self-conscious about her multicultural background, Malik initially chose to forego the veil. However, as she grew more immersed in the world of theater, she came to see her Muslim heritage as a source of artistic inspiration. In college, at age 19, she adopted the hijab.
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That interplay — of tradition, identity and self-determination — deeply informs the five portraits at the heart of “Unveiled.” Inspired as a way of combating negative stereotypes in the wake of 9/11, the play depicts a wide variety of Muslim experiences. Each character represents a different culture and background. What unites them are the veil; the humor and honesty of their stories; and the tea they serve to welcome guests.
The evening opens with Maryam, a wry, Pakistan-born housewife who designs wedding dresses for Chicago women in search of a Bollywood look. “All the girls have wanted it since ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ ” she teases a client.
For Shabana, a British hip-hop artist, the hijab represents rebellion against her own mother, who worries it will affect marriage prospects, but also a form of empowerment. “Deal with my mind, not my body,” Shabana argues. “This is my feminism.”
Other characters include a Moroccan-American lawyer, an African-American Texan who reconnects with the Islam of her childhood, and a Palestinian restaurant owner who confronts a would-be attacker.
The Chicago Tribune calls Malik a “hugely talented writer-actress” and “a remarkable new theatrical voice … In her rich, upbeat and very enjoyable 70-minute collection of five character studies of Muslim women in modern-day America, Malik gives voice to characters from whom we hear far too little in the theater.”
Currently a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists and an artistic associate at the 16th Street Theater, Malik was one of four writers in the inaugural group of The Goodman Theater’s Playwrights Unit.
“Unveiled,” her professional stage debut, received its world premiere in May 2009 at the 16th Street Theater, directed by Ann Filmer. Subsequent productions include Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago; Next Theater, Evanston, Ill.; Brava Theater, San Francisco; and Crossroads Theater, New Brunswick, N.J.
Other plays include “Yasmina’s Necklace” (2010), an exploration of cultural identity, and “The Mecca Tales (2011), a Goodman commission inspired by Chaucer’s classic “The Canterbury Tales.”
Tickets and sponsors
“Unveiled” begins at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27. Tickets are $36, or $32 seniors, $28 for Washington University faculty and staff and $20 for students and children.
Tickets are available at the Edison Box Office and through all MetroTix outlets. Edison Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd.
Performances of “Unveiled” are supported by the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program in Arts & Sciences. The Ovations Series is made possible with support from the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis; and private contributors.